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Top-10 things to look for in televised poker shows

30 August 2010

The World Series of Poker on ESPN, High Stakes Poker on GSN, and The PokerStars.net Big Game on Fox represent just a fraction of the televised poker menu available to the viewing public. That wasn't true 10 years ago when you had to struggle to find poker on TV. Now, players have plenty of options. And with the wide variety of poker shows available, poker players don't have to settle for watching bad television to get their poker fix.

No one wants to watch anonymous players trade chips in a game they don't understand. (Despite repeated calls to network executives, the Casino City Home Game has yet to find a taker to televise our low-stakes pot-limit Omaha hi-low game.) When it comes to building a successful poker show, the devil is in the details.

Here are the top-10 things that make for a good poker show. So keep an eye out for these traits the next time you're channel surfing.

10. An "Average Joe"
Poker shows need an everyman who viewers can identify with so they can try to imagine what they would do with pocket jacks against a pro's all-in move on a queen-seven-five board. Tournaments like the WSOP have plenty of these players, with winners like Chris Moneymaker and Jerry Yang, and other recent final table qualifiers like Dennis Phillips and Darvin Moon. The PokerStars.net Big Game accomplishes it by fronting an online qualifier $100,000 to play with and allowing him to keep the profits, while NBC's Heads-Up Poker Championship also saves a space for two online qualifiers.

9. Table banter
There's a reason Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth are always at the feature table at the WSOP and get invitations to every made-for-TV poker event. They are entertaining to watch, even though they approach table banter in completely opposite ways. While Negreanu smiles and makes friends while digging for every bit of information he can get, Hellmuth berates players who make aggressive plays against him. Sure, Phil Ivey is amazing, but put him at a table with eight other people like him and it's going to be a snore-fest, no matter what the stakes.

8. High stakes
And high stakes doesn't necessarily mean a lot of money riding on the pot. Sure, the WSOP Main Event winner takes home close to $9 million this year, and that's certainly life-changing money for anyone, even a successful poker pro like Michael Mizrachi. But high stakes can also mean a $12,000 profit for a player on The PokerStars.net Big Game. And the $400/$800 blinds on High Stakes Poker make nearly every pot reach at least five, if not six figures. And that's without the occasional $1,600 straddle.

7. Recognizable faces
Sure, an Average Joe is important, but so are faces and names that most people can recognize. Ideally poker tables will have at least three or four players that almost everyone can recognize. When there's just one famous pro (see most WSOP Day 1 broadcasts) nearly every hand shown will involve that known player. Poker shows work best when there's a balance and you get to see different players employing different styles of play.

6. Tension
Tension can be found when players are waiting to see if their double-belly-buster straight draw will hit against their opponent's over pair. Or it can come in the form of past antagonism (Who doesn't want to see Negreanu face Annie Duke?). Or it can come in the form of David Grey (2:20 in).



5. Good commentators
A good commentator can make or break a poker broadcast. It's tough to find the right balance between providing information and entertainment and letting the players do the talking. High Stakes Poker's Gabe Kaplan and Poker After Dark's Ali Nejad take a more hands-off approach, letting the players' actions and table talk carry most of the broadcast. ESPN's Lon McEachern and Norman Chad are the exact opposite, providing well over half of the dialogue in a typical WSOP broadcast. Both approaches work, but ESPN has recently started overdoing it, forcing McEachern to belt out positions like "UTG+2" and "stats" like VPIP and aggression percentage.

4. Clear graphical displays
It's important to be able to see where the action stands during a televised poker show. Viewers need to be able to look at the screen and instantly know what each player holds, how much is in the pot, and who has raised, called, and who's turn it is to act. It's also important to know each player's odds of winning the hand. Most poker shows do this well, but some may be screen-testing their shows only on large high-definition screens, as it can be a little hard to see what cards players are holding on an old-school, moderately-sized television.

3. Bad Beats
Poker shows can't bank on bad beats, but they sure make for excellent television. Who can forget the time Negreanu's full house lost to Gus Hansen's quads? And the Casino City editorial team already knows the hand everyone will remember from Day 8 of the 2010 WSOP will be, even before ESPN has put together the broadcast.



2. Humor
Whether it comes from the players or from the commentators, humor is an essential part of every poker broadcast. It can come at the table, or it can come in canned competition, like the prop bet championship that ESPN staged in 2007.



1. Good storytelling
Poker is a great game, but with the exception of the most diehard aficionados, most people don't think it stands on its own on television. It needs great storytelling to accompany the action. When shows start developing the players' personalities, whether they be the Average Joe or the well-known pro, heroes and villains take form, and people develop rooting interests.

Bonus: Tony G
Speaking of villains … Tony G doesn't do as many poker shows as he did a few years ago. But when he's on, you have to watch. Basically, this is just an excuse to get one of the best poker clips on YouTube in this story.


Top-10 things to look for in televised poker shows is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Aaron Todd
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.